“Mot, Hai, Ba, YO!” we all shouted as we clinked our tiny glasses together and downed another shot of rice wine. I fought back my grimace and put on a polite smile as my glass was refilled yet again.
‘Jenny’, Ha leaned over and whispered, ‘you’re a woman, so it’s really ok if you just sip the wine’. Oh thank God! This was music to my ears because by this time I’d already consumed quite a few shots of both rice wine and boxed red wine and occasionally even whiskey. It had not yet hit 10am, and I wasn’t sure how much more I could handle.
I was visiting my friend’s parents’ house for the Vietnamese holiday of Tet. On the morning of New Year’s Day, just as we were finishing breakfast, the front room of the house suddenly filled with a large crowd of people and we all gathered around and had a drink together. And not a normal morning drink like tea or coffee, but a drink of proper red wine poured out of a box. At 9:30 in the morning. Then in a big, jolly group, we all proceeded to go to the next house, and the next, and the next, and so on for about 2 hours until we’d stumbled all the way around the block.
The thing that struck me here is that I was a complete stranger to these people, having only met my friend’s parents the night before and had never seen any of the others before in my life. And yet, in every house that we visited, I was welcomed and almost always invited to sit down with the men and have a drink, while most of the women stayed standing behind or in the doorway. Sometimes the women were given drinks, sometimes not, but I had one every single time. The only other woman that I could see that was regularly invited to join the men was my friend’s mom, who seems to be rather important in the community.
After a while of this, I started thinking that a shot of rice wine in every house might get to be a bit much (although it was some of the best rice wine I’ve ever had, but that’s not saying much) and I was grateful to Ha for pointing out that despite them treating me like a man, I am, in fact, female, and am not required to down every shot I am given.
This is great! I get the best of both worlds! I get to drink with the men, but when it’s too much for me I don’t have to be all macho and ‘man up’ and just drink it anyway. I can gracefully decline or just sip my drink politely and it’s OK.
I noticed similar attitudes in Egypt. There, drinking alcohol isn’t so common, but tea houses are. You generally only ever see men inside, and I wondered what would happen to a local woman who might have the guts to say ‘Hey, I like tea too!’, and go in and order that hot, strong, super sweet cup of tea. For me, it was not a problem. I might have gotten a few stares, but I’m a Westerner and therefore I don’t quite count as a woman. But then maybe that’s because I was with my boyfriend (they all just assumed he was my husband, of course).
When we did find a bar (serving only beer) in Cairo, I was the only woman in it. I was accepted, perhaps because I was clearly not Muslim and not even Egyptian.
I’m not complaining. Like I said, I really get the best of both worlds, being able to do what I want and join in all activities, without any testosterone-based pressure to keep up or perform. Considering all the other things I have to think about as a solo female traveler that are not so convenient, I think I’ll just be happy to be considered ‘not quite female’ sometimes!
Have you ever been included where you didn’t expect to, because of gender, nationality, race, or other reasons? What were your experiences?